The Power of Play in Physical Education

Nikki Kaufmann

The notion of play, whether it involves sport, minor games, fitness, team-building or any other active pursuit, is a core tenet of our school’s physical education philosophy. The power of play emerges when it is fun, collaborative, challenging and allows individuals to engage with a sense of belonging. Play is a skill we master in the early stages of life and become increasingly poor at as we age, which is an unfortunate reality.

Current research shows that play is becoming less a part of children’s lives today, consequently producing a gap in important developmental, social and emotional opportunities. This is a worrisome trend. Think of a small child immersed in play with other children: there is dialogue, negotiation, sharing, self-regulation, risk exploration, feedback and integration, creativity and fun. In essence, these are high order skills being explored and learned without being explicitly taught. This is why play is so powerful: the skills involved are immense yet often subtly integrated in a very natural and authentic manner.

A recently published book, The Coddling of the American Mind, explores the concept of play and underscores its importance in children’s lives. The authors of the book have researched extensively the current climate contributing to the development of young adults plagued with anxiety, depression, and a general inability to navigate their world with a true sense of direction and resilience. They identify the decline in play as an area of significance to explain this trend. 

There are many factors currently contributing to the decline in play in children’s lives. One major influence is the prevalent culture of technology and social media. Technology and screen time have become replacements for what used to be unstructured social playtime. This is particularly troublesome as the benefits and skills of play are now traded for, at worst, an addiction that can cause social exclusion, anxiety and depression, and only, at best, a sedentary activity that does not provide the body or the brain with the stimulation required for the development of a healthy individual.

Another contributing factor has been the shift to a higher stakes culture for children, where their activities are structured to promote and benefit their future pursuits (educational opportunities, post-secondary options, career paths, etc.). While this factor certainly stems from a place of good intention, the implications at developmentally important stages can be disadvantageous. It can again cause a double negative effect of missing out on a crucial play experience in childhood and adolescence, and where alternative activities are causing undue stress. This is not to say that technology and the pursuit of success are the root of evil. They are certainly not, and indeed have their place in a child’s development. It is, however, a problem when these (or other) activities replace the vital element of play.

Fortunately, we take play very seriously at SMUS. It is why physical education is an essential component of our students’ overall educational experience. It provides an intentional time to put away technology, to be free of academic demands and to immerse in play. We must not underestimate the value of play within the school day and its connection to healthy social and emotional development and overall well-being. Through play in our physical education program, students learn to collaborate and negotiate in a group setting, they assess and tread levels of risk, they explore how their actions impact others, and they build resilience. These are fundamental skills and experiences that are vital for success in school and beyond.

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Nikki Kaufmann
Nikki Kaufmann is Head of Physical Education and a Senior Houseparent at St. Michaels University School.

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